History of the Institute

Max Planck Institute for Biology Tübingen

The history of what is known today as the Max Planck Institute for Biology started in 1943, when the virology research group of the MPI for Biology (located in Berlin-Dahlem and Tübingen) seceded from its parent institute. This off-shoot, named Max Planck Institute for Virus Research, was initially set up close to the city center. Four years after the founding of an independent MPI for Virus Research in 1956, the young institute moved to the uphill campus overlooking the town, where it is still situated today.

Early pioneering work in virology and genetics: the first generation

The founding directors were Hans Friedrich-Freksa (Department for Physical Biology), Gerhard Schramm (Department for Biochemistry) and Werner Schäfer (Department for Virology). In 1960, Alfred Gierer joined the institute as director of the Department for Molecular Biology.
The four departments, each of them housed in building of its own, shared central facilities such as the library, the electron microscopy facility, the animal house, and the greenhouse. When in 1968 the MPI for Biological Cybernetics was founded, the MPI started sharing the use of the guest house (Max Planck House) with its new neighbor.

During this period, the Max Planck Institute for Virus Research saw pioneering work on the molecular biology of the genetic code, as well as the structure and function of animal retroviruses and the plant RNA virus TMV.
In 1969, the Friedrich Miescher Laboratory (FML) was established on campus; to this day, it continues to host four independent junior research groups.

A shift towards developmental biology: the second generation

It was one of the FML group leaders, Friedrich Bonhoeffer, who became the first director of the second generation. Bonhoeffer was appointed director in 1972, followed by Uli Schwarz and Peter Hausen. The focus of the institute gradually changed, so that in 1984 it was renamed MPI for Developmental Biology. In the following year, the future Nobel prize winner Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was appointed director of the Department for Genetics. By the 1990s, the research areas of the institute had come to include developmental biology of Hydra and frogs, neuroembryology in chickens, and developmental genetics of Drosophila and zebrafish.

Continuous growth and change: the third generation

Upon the retirement of Alfred Gierer and Friedrich Bonhoeffer, a third generation of directors began to change the focus of the institute again. When in 1998 it became clear that the neighboring MPI for Biology was going to close its doors, this freed resources, which could be used for expanding its daughter institute, the MPI for Developmental Biology. In 1999, Ralf Sommer’s Depertment for Integrative Evolutionary Biology was added to the institute, soon followed by Andrei Lupas’ Department for Protein Evolution in 2001. A year later, Detlef Weigel (Molecular Biology) brought back plant biology. The appointment of a new generation of Directors was completed with Elisa Izaurralde (Biochemistry) in 2005 and Gerd Jürgens (Cell Biology) in 2008.

The retirement of Jürgens in 2010 and the early demise of Izaurralde in 2018 brought about new changes of the institute: Ruth Ley joined in 2016 as director of the Department for Microbiome Science, and in 2020 Susana Coelho brought Algal Development and Evolution to the institute. In addition to the departments and the departmental research groups, the institute hosts several independent research groups.

The broad focus that the institute has gained in recent years is reflected in another renaming: since 2022, it is known under the name of MPI for Biology.


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